BWW Reviews: Whittaker Leads A Charmed Production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Chaffin's Barn
There comes a moment late in Act Two when Tevye, the beleaguered dairyman at the center of Fiddler on the Roof, remembers his daughters in childhood and laments the loss of his beloved "Chavaleh" to marriage to a gentile, which completely encapsulates the joy and the sadness that permeates this classic work of the musical theater. Derek Whittaker, playing the role of a lifetime as he leads the cast of Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre's new production of the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein musical, is at his best in this scene, artfully blending his finely honed comic sensibilities with a genuine pathos that creates a heart-tugging moment that is genuinely effective.
Directed by Martha Wilkinson with graceful ease and a very real sense of time and place, of warmly realized nostalgia mixed with theatrical flair and performance flourish, it's one of the most affecting productions of the musical-based upon the writings of Yiddish memoirist and humorist Sholem Aleichem-you could ever hope to see. Wilkinson, Chaffin's Barn's artistic director and Nashville's best known musical theater performer, brings her practiced eye as a director and her focused skill as an actor together to craft a production that lifts the heart with its gentle grace and belly-laugh-inducing humor. Then, turning on a dime, you find yourself catching your breath at the poignancy of the story of these simple villagers in 1905 Anatevka, a Russian hamlet where times are difficult, the Tsar exerts his influence from across the vast expanse of the country and the people eke out a meager existence leavened with humor and huge amounts of love.
Debuting on Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof won nine of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated and it became the first musical theatre production to run for more than 3,000 performances, claiming the top spot among Broadway's longest-running shows for 10 years (until it was overtaken by Grease).
It still ranks among the Top 15 Longest Running Musicals and it's easy to see why. But think about it: How hard must it have been to convince producers that the first musical theater work to focus on the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe could be a surefire success? It very nearly boggles the mind-some 50 years out from that initial meeting that led to the musical's justifiably appropriate place in the canon of the very best of American musical theater. To have considered Fiddler on the Roof as a musical must have been quite the illogical conundrum before it became the staggering hit and musical theater standard that it is today.
Wilkinson and her creative collective-which includes musical director Jaclyn Lisenby Brown, choreographer Holly Shepherd, costume and wig designer Hannah Schmidt, lighting designer Katie Gant and producer John Chaffin-have cobbled together a winning production, one that pays homage to the show's literary and musical heritage without being slavishly reverent. Together, they breathe new life and vigor into the warhorse of a show, telling the story of Tevye, his long-suffering wife Golde, their five daughters, their suitors and the villagers of Anatevka with a confidence borne of the company's years of experience and the creative focus of the team.
Wilkinson's 20-member cast includes a handful of Barn veterans joined by a bevy of newcomers who now become part of the venerable theater's tradition of training young actors and sending them out into the world to do their artistic thing, continuing the thread of community that pervades theater wherever in the world you might see it performed. It's like a richly woven tapestry: The 2012 version of Fiddler on the Roof is wonderfully entertaining and rather entrancing, but you can't help but remember earlier productions of the musical that starred such Barn luminaries as Michael Edwards, Lari White, Mark Delabarre, Chris Harrod and Wilkinson herself (I confess, however, that my memories of Tennessee Rep's Fiddler on the Roof might be intruding, mixing up the casts in my mind) amid the scores of actors who have trod the boards of that magical, levitating stage where so many theatrical memories have been made since 1967.
Whittaker leads the cast with his customary zeal, embodying the spirit and good humor of Tevye in his skillful portrayal and playing opposite Debbie Kraski, as Golde, with an ease that belies both actors' hard work and obvious affection for their roles. Whittaker is a bombastic blunderbuss as Tevye, walking that fine line between characterization and stereotype with a self-assurance that allows him to connect to his audience at every moment while giving us his own personal insight into the character without being intrusive or too uncomfortably intimate.
The same can be said for Kraski, who plays Golde with a mix of over-the-top delivery and heartfelt maternalism. Her scenes with Whittaker fairly crackle with the intensity of the 25-year-old partnership enjoyed by Golde and Tevye, while she reveals her character's heart and soul in scenes involving the pair's five daughters. Hers is an artfully etched portrait that is somehow delicately crafted despite Golde's sometimes brittle outspokenness.
Cast as their older trio of daughters, Mia Rose, Jennifer Richmond and Erica Lee Haines give expressive, evocative performances that underscore their affections for one another and all the other members of the ensemble, which creates the strong sense of family that simmers barely contained throughout the musical. Rose's Tzeitel is sweetly realized, particularly in her pairing with Brian Fisk as the tailor Motel; he is charming and winning in his nebbishy grace, while she is elegant yet earthy in her portrayal. Fisk's "Miracle of Miracles," is nicely played, capturing his character's relative unease and boundless enthusiasm in the very same phrase.
Richmond (playing Hodel), who local audiences would be well-advised to keep their eyes on, once again delivers a noteworthy performance that further underscores her tremendous range and versatility. Each of her performances is infused with such heart and such a sense of determination that you cannot help but be totally mesmerized by her. Pay attention to the emotion and the drama that she telegraphs so eloquently via her eyes: you will see Richmond's total focus brought to life. Her initial scene with Perchik (the student from Kiev who's come to Anatevka to enlist support for his revolutionary cause is played with passion by the handsome Luke Denison) is brief and could be easily forgotten were it not for the onstage chemistry of Richmond and Denison, which results in a truly moving moment. Her performance of "Far From the Home I Love" in Act Two becomes something far more effective in her hands, while "Now I Have Everything"-Denison's expression of delight at discovering his love for Hodel-is joyous and buoyant.
Haines projects an innocence and intelligence in her portrayal of Chava, brandishing her beautiful smile that is almost blindingly bright at times, making her eventual separation from the rest of the family all the more compelling and heartbreaking. She is winningly paired onstage with Zack McCann, one of Nashville's finest actors, as Fyedka, and their brief scenes together work so well because of their shared trust. Most recently, they worked opposite each other as the tragic young marrieds in Boiler Room Theatre's critically acclaimed production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which no doubt adds to their ability to play off each other's obvious strengths.
Among the ensemble's members, special mention must go to Daron Bruce as Mordcha; Will Sevier, who supplies his gorgeous voice to Lazar Wolf; Jaclyn Lisenby Brown, doing double duty as Fruma-Sarah in the production's exquisitely crafted "Dream" sequence that has never been better; Amanda Lamb as the gossipy busy-body Yente; Thomas Harton in his Barn debut as Mendel/Sasha; Anwen Wilkerson as The Fiddler; and the no-less-than-amazing Daniel ("M.") Bissell as the Rabbi.
Wilkinson's fluid direction ensures that the show moves along at a sprightly pace (which is essential given the show's three hours of running time, including intermission), while Holly Shepherd's choreography provides the clever and necessary movements that ensures an entertaining evening ("Tradition," "Sunrise/Sunset" and "To Life" are particularly notable) while she "shepherds" the actors' 20 bodies around the postage stamp-sized stage. The minimalist set design is perfect, allowing the collective imagination of the audience to soar-just as all theater should-and Katie Gant's lighting design provides the necessary atmospherics to the proceedings. Hannah Schmidt's costumes help the actors to more fully become their characters and are handsomely designed even despite the meager surroundings implied in the performance.
Brown's musical direction provides a tuneful accompaniment to the actors' performances, with kudos to Susan Brown, Randy Craft and Derrick McCullough for their on-target playing of the Jerry Bock score.
Audiences have until July 8 to see for themselves another example of why musical theater is such an important part of our artistic legacy and why Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre remains relevant and essential some 45 years after its first show. Don't miss this opportunity.
- Fiddler On The Roof. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Book by Joseph Stein. Directed by Martha Wilkinson. Musical direction by Jaclyn Brown. Choreography by Holly Shepherd. Produced by Janie and John Chaffin. At Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. Through July 8. For details, go to www.dinnertheatre.com; for reservations, call (615) 646-9977.